Sunday, 26 April 2015

Military: China puts Philippines in a 'very difficult situation'

Reclamation and construction on Mischief (Panganiban) Reef in the South China Sea are seen in this recent aerial photo released by the Philippines Armed Forces on April 20, 2015. (Source: AFP)

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is now in a "very difficult situation" and is in danger of losing access to some of its territories because of China's massive reclamation in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the military said Monday.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr. said the Philippines would be cut off from Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Pag-Asa Island if China reclaims Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, an area located 135 miles west of Palawan.

"We are really amazed by the phase of China's reclamation. It's fast but I hope it's not furious," Catapang said in a press conference Monday.

"We are in a very difficult situation because now, they are reclaiming the Mischief Reef. If they reclaim the Mischief Reef, we will be cut off," he added.

Ayungin Shoal is being secured by Marine troops stationed in BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded Navy ship that serves as a Philippine military detachment. Chinese ships have set up a blockade to prevent the Navy from sending supplies to the detachment, which symbolizes the Philippines' ownership of the shoal.

Pag-Asa Island, meanwhile, is the biggest island held by the Philippines in the disputed Spratlys archipelago, which is also being claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Located in the island is Kalayaan, a fifth class town under Palawan inhabited by around 200 people. The Philippines has constructed a town hall, a 1.3-kilometer airstrip, a health center, a school and a naval station to assert its sovereignty over the area.

While the Philippines only built modest facilities in Kalayaan, China installed advanced equipment in its controlled areas including the Mischief Reef.

The Chinese government has built a garrison, a windmill, solar panels, a concrete platform suitable for helipad and a basketball court on the reef, which is within the Philippines' 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

If the Philippines loses access to Ayungin and Pag-asa, it will be very difficult for the military to replenish the supplies of troops guarding the two areas.

"We have an arc of defense and if the Mischief Reef is reclaimed, we will have a problem. If they (China) reclaim it, they will threaten all our islands," Catapang said.

The military also expressed concerns over China's construction of artificial islets in Kennan (Chigua) and Mabini (Johnson South) Reefs. China is also making progress in its projects in Burgos (Gaven), Calderon (Cuarteron), Zamora (Subi), and Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reefs.

"As soon as the Mischief Reef is reclaimed and all the reclamation is finished, then the next move of the Chinese might be a difficult or a different one. They might propagate the area with lots of ships," Catapang said.

"That will really militarize the area and that will create tensions," he added.

China has also maintained its presence in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, an area located 124 nautical miles from the nearest point in Zambales

Local fishermen can no longer enter what used to be their traditional fishing route since 2012, when Chinese surveillance vessels prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese poachers who had collected endangered marine species from the shoal.

"In the future, we have to help our fishermen go back to their former fishing grounds," Catapang said.

"I think the Coast Guard will have to escort them because if we use the gray ship it will unnecessarily provoke the other side," he added, referring to military vessels.

Catapang said they fully support the government's efforts to protest China's aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea.

"We have compelling reasons to raise our voice to tell the whole world the adverse effects of China's aggressiveness that has created tensions not only among the countries who have overlapping claims in the area but also among the countries around the world who are using the international sea lanes in the West Philippine Sea," he said.

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